Genetic mechanisms regulating proliferation and cell specification in the Drosophila embryonic CNS
Abstract: The central nervous system (CNS) consists of an enormous number of cells, and large cellular variance, integrated into an elaborate network. The CNS is the most complex animal organ, and therefore its establishment must be controlled by many different genetic programs. Considering the high level of complexity in the human CNS, addressing issues related to human neurodevelopment represents a major challenge. Since comparative studies have revealed that neurodevelopmental programs are well conserved through evolution, on both the genetic and functional levels, studies on invertebrate neurodevelopmental programs are often translatable to vertebrates. Indeed, the basis of our current knowledge about vertebrate CNS development has been greatly aided by studies on invertebrates, and in particular on the Drosophila melanogaster (fruit fly) model system.This thesis attempted to identify novel genes regulating neural cell specification and proliferation in the CNS, using the Drosophila model system. Moreover, I aimed to address how those genes govern neural progenitor cells (neuroblasts; NBs) to obtain/maintain their stemness identity and proliferation capacity, and how they drive NBs through temporal windows and series of programmed asymmetric division, which gradually reduces their stemness identity in favor of neural differentiation, resulting in appropriate lineage progression. In the first project, we conducted a forward genetic screen in Drosophila embryos, aimed at isolating genes involved in regulation of neural proliferation and specification, at the single cell resolution. By taking advantage of the restricted expression of the neuropeptide FMRFa in the last-born cell of the NB lineage 5-6T, the Ap4 neuron, we could monitor the entire lineage progression. This screen succeeded in identifying 43 novel genes controlling different aspects of CNS development. One of the genes isolated, Ctr9, displayed extra Ap4/FMRFa neurons. Ctr9 encodes a component of the RNA polymerase II complex Paf1, which is involved in a number of transcriptional processes. The Paf1C, including Ctr9, is highly conserved from yeast to human, and in the past couple of years, its importance for transcription has become increasingly appreciated. However, studies in the Drosophila system have been limited. In the screen, we isolated the first mutant of Drosophila Ctr9 and conducted the first detailed phenotypic study on its function in the Drosophila embryonic CNS. Loss of function of Ctr9 leads to extra NB numbers, higher proliferation ratio and lower expression of neuropeptides. Gene expression analysis identified several other genes regulated by Ctr9, which may explain the Ctr9 mutant phenotypes. In summary, we identified Ctr9 as an essential gene for proper CNS development in Drosophila, and this provides a platform for future study on the Drosophila Paf1C. Another interesting gene isolated in the screen was worniou (wor), a member of the Snail family of transcription factors. In contrast to Ctr9, whichdisplayed additional Ap4/FMRFa neurons, wor mutants displayed a loss of these neurons. Previous studies in our group have identified many genes acting to stop NB lineage progression, but how NBs are pushed to proliferate and generate their lineages was not well known. Since wor may constitute a “driver” of proliferation, we decided to study it further. Also, we identified five other transcription factors acting together with Wor as pro-proliferative in both NBs and their daughter cells. These “drivers” are gradually replaced by the previously identified late-acting “stoppers.” Early and late factors regulate each other and the cell cycle, and thereby orchestrate proper neural lineage progression.
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